September 2011 Reading: The Comforters, By Night in Chile, Mrs Dalloway, Madame Bovary, The Good Soldier

The Comforters by Muriel Spark (1957)
The more observant among you may have noticed that I have spent most of this year reading very contemporary literature.  The discovery of the ominously titled ‘Preliminary Reading List’ for my MA course forced me to step a little further back in time last month, which is also why there will be a few ‘classics’ appearing on this blog over the coming months.  In fact, The Comforters is the only novel I have read this month that wasn’t on the list (we do have to read Spark, but Girls of Slender Means – if anyone has read it, let me know what you thought of it), but it was an attempt to get me out of the 21st century mindset I have been stuck in all year.  This is Spark’s first novel, and the first work of hers that I have read.
Spark is very appropriately named.  She is, indeed sparky.  And feisty.  The witty, tongue-in-cheek prose carries the reader along for a swift and enjoyable ride, following the story of Caroline Rose, a young woman who makes the startling discovery that she is trapped in a novel.  This isn’t as annoying as it sounds; rather than a pretentious post-modern angst-fest, we are instead simply treated to several wry references to plotting and to the ‘author’s’ own frustration with her character Caroline, who is berated for
“exerting an undue, unreckoned influence on the narrative from which she is supposed to be absent for a time.”
The supporting characters are colourful and intriguing, from the despicable Mrs Hogg to the diamond-smuggling Super Gran, Louisa Jepp.  My only problem with the novel is that it is such a quick read I felt like I didn’t have enough time to really immerse myself in the world of the novel.  Or the novel within the novel.  Or whatever.  I may be an MA student, but complicated things still hurt my head.
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño (2000)
Speaking of complicated things, how about a novel consisting of 130 pages but only two paragraphs, narrated by a dying priest with a dual identity telling us things in a feverish stream-of-consciousness that may or may not be true about a combination of real and fictional characters?  Ouch.
Some of the passages are incredibly lyrical, and Bolaño weaves his country’s literary and political history into the life of his protagonist in a way that made me want to go and read up on Chile, a country of which I am woefully ignorant.  Several literary figures I wish I had heard of turn up, as does Pinochet, who I have heard of – but mostly because my Dad was accused of being involved in some kind of conspiracy when Pinochet was up for extradition, and the Chilean press referred to him as ‘Kenny’ Hogger, which is the very long-winded explanation for why we call him Kenny (Dad, not Pinochet).
In retrospect, I probably should have left this one until after we have discussed it in class.  My fellow MA students are very clever and probably understood it better than I did, and I could have stolen their brilliant ideas and passed them off as my own.  Ah well
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
I have to admit, this is the first work of fiction by Woolf that I have read (did you really study English as an undergrad, Ellie?) although I have read A Room of One’s Own.  I’ve also read and watched The Hours, though I don’t think that counts.  I know that she is supposed to be one of those Marmite authors, but I have to say, I didn’t love it or hate it.  I liked the way the novel dips in and out of the point of view of all the various characters, creating an unsettling but invigorating effect, and the paralleling of Clarissa’s story with that of Septimus neatly illustrates the lurking despair behind Mrs Dalloway’s social brightness:
            “She felt somehow very like him […] She felt glad that he had done it.”
However, there were definitely points where I wished she’d throw in a joke or two to lighten the mood, and I found it hard to find a connection to the eponymous protagonist.  I am quite an emotional reader, and if I don’t feel any kind of attachment to the main character, then however brilliant the writing, I tend to struggle.  Which was also a problem I had with the following book.
Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert (1856)
One day, I am going to read Madame Bovary in French.  I may have to get past level Elementaire Trois first, but dammit, I will do it.  We’ve actually so far only looked at literature in translation in our MA seminars (this novel, and a couple of Chekhov stories), and whether or not you have a good translation makes a big difference.  I think mine was ok for Bovary (though not for the Chekhov), but it was still startlingly different to some of the other students’ versions.
I don’t like Emma Bovary.  If I had to go out for a drink with her, I would probably end up pouring it all over her (in my head, of course: I am far too English for such behaviour in real life).  I understand that her life is a bit tedious and that her husband is a bit dull, and that, as a woman at that time, her choices were severely limited and blah blah blah.  But she is a very silly woman, and at times downright hateful, such as when she contemplates her own daughter:
            “It is very strange,” thought Emma, “how ugly this child is!”
That is just mean.
Having said that, I did like the novel as a whole.  Translations aside, Flaubert certainly knows how to capture a landscape, or a character, or a mood.  And, unlike Woolf, he isn’t afraid of exploiting his characters’ weaknesses for the sake of humour.  He also has a knack for making his characters voice thoughts that really strike a chord, so that I read the following:
            “Has it ever happened to you,” Leon went on, “to come across some vague idea of one’s own in a book, some dim image that comes back to you from afar, and as the completest image of your own slightest sentiment?”
and I said, possibly out loud, “Yes, all the time, Leon!”
An interesting aspect of the book is how Flaubert views the literature of his day.  Emma is, at one point, banned from reading novels, though this doesn’t last long.  For her, it seems, such reading has a similar effect to rom-coms today, building up a hopelessly unrealistic picture of love and life, and even death, all of which fail to play out as the overly romantic Emma plans.  I’ll admit to being a bit of a romantic too.  I suppose, if we ever do get round to that drink, we can always have a good bitch about how life is never like it is in the movies.
The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford (1915)
Anyone who has read this book won’t be surprised that we’ve been asked to read it in order to discuss ‘the unreliable narrator’.  John Dowell (whose name I just had to check on Google because it is used so infrequently in the novel), the narrator of The Good Soldier,  relates the story of his and his wife’s ‘friendship’ with the Ashburnhams, Edward (the ‘good soldier’ of the title) and Leonora.  Right from the start, Dowell poses the question of narration as a quandary:
            “I don’t know how it is best to put this thing down – whether it would be better to try and tell the story from the beginning as if it were a story; or whether to tell it from this distance of time, as it reached me from the lips of Leonora or from those of Edward himself.”
In the event, Dowell’s narration skips about: facts are hidden, histories concealed until the last few chapters: time in the novel is anything but linear.  (Having just read a chapter on this very subject by Gérard Genette, I could bore you senseless about internal homodiegetic analepses, but this is Review Number Five and you’re probably half asleep already).  Obviously, Dowell presents this as artless, the fault of lack of planning and faulty memory:
            “But, looking over what I have written, I see that I have unintentionally misled you”
However, Ford (how did he ever know if people were calling him by his first name or his surname? For the record, I’m being polite and using his surname here) knows exactly what he is doing.  In gradually feeding the reader the story in dribs and drabs, the picture that we build up of the relationships between the characters becomes infinitely more complex, and much more true to life.  When Dowell states in the novel that we can never truly know another person, he is, of course, right, but the way we get close to some kind of understanding of other people is never simply from hearing their story as a simple, linear narrative.